Identity

'It Was a Revolution': How the Māori LGBTQ Community Became a Family

"When we looked across the Pacific, we saw the fa'afafine of Samoa, the Māhū of Hawaii, and the fakaleiti of Tonga. Where was our identity?"

by Rebecca Kamm
Nov 17 2016, 11:00pm

All photos by Tanu Gago

Thirty years ago in New Zealand, at the height of the AIDs epidemic, the Māori LGBTQ community assembled for a hui (gathering). They had watched the disease ravage their loved ones, witnessed firsthand the nationwide homophobia and transphobia that followed, and felt more acutely than ever that they needed to mobilize.

When they finally dissembled, it was with a new identity in place: "Takatāpui". Just one word, but for those who gathered—and continue to gather—under its umbrella, so much more than a word, says author Jordon Harris.

Harris, who works for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation and identifies as takatāpui, spent three years documenting the stories behind what he describes as a "revolution". The finished product is Takatāpui: A Place of Standing, a book filled with oral histories and images that together illustrate a movement.

We spoke to Harris about what the term "takatāpui" means to those it continues to envelop, educate, and empower.

BROADLY: Most of the world, New Zealanders included, won't know what "takatāpui" means or represents. Can you fill them in?
Jordon Harris: The word comes from from the Māori legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai. In the story there is a relationship between a chief, Tutanekai, and his friend, Tiki, who was also male. It is described as a "takatāpui" relationship.

In the dictionary, "takatāpui" translates as "An intimate companion of the same sex". It doesn't necessarily mean a sexual relationship—it's just a very, very close relationship. A lot of people actually differ on whether the men had a relationship or not.

The term created a movement within our Māori queer community. It created a whanau [family].

It was the only word my predecessors could find that was in our language, and described our relationships. Prior this word, we were almost non-existent in our own culture. When we looked across the Pacific, we saw the fa'afafine of Samoa, the Māhū of Hawaii, and the fakaleiti of Tonga. Where was our identity? Why was our identity lost? The term created a movement within the Māori queer community. It created a whanau [family].

What was the status of LGBTQ Māori, within the wider Māori community, before they were united by this term?
I wasn't around before this word [came about], but from the stories that I've been told, some people were kicked out of home or ostracized by their whanau [families] because of their of sexual or gender identity. There are stories of our people flocking from their homes and moving to the cities, where they got involved in lifestyles of sex, alcohol, and drugs. There wasn't a sense of a community as such—not like there is today.

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Do you think the adoption this new word helped to spread understanding?
I definitely think the word has helped us to educate our own whanau [families], hapu [sub tribes], and iwi [tribes]. I mean, we've had takatāpui TV shows, and the word is used nationally. There are some that still don't accept it, but it has helped to break down those barriers and those stigmas—the homophobia and transphobia that in Māori communities are sometimes not talked about. Takatāpui has really helped us to actually start talking about it.

Tell me about the movement's connection to the AIDS epidemic.
In the 80s, when the AIDs epidemic first hit the country, there was a hui [gathering] of the Māori gay, lesbian and transgender communities. They came together to talk about HIV and AIDS—to educate our communities, because our people were dying of AIDS.

We need an identity. Where's our history? Where's our word?

From those discussions, there was a cry of: "We need an identity. Where's our history? Where's our word?" From that came the research that led to the finding of this word. The community that we have now stemmed from those hui. I see it as a revolution, really.

When did you personally first become aware of the term?
Way back in the 90s, when I was 16 or 17, I attended a national gathering of Māori Rainbow communities. It was when they were first introducing this word, "takatāpui". I remember they asked us if we wanted a word from our own language to identify with.

We were all like, "Yeah, we do." The more I got to know the community, the more I got to know that I had this family of aunties and uncles—and all these queens that embraced and looked after us—the more I felt part of a whanau [family].

You touch on the introduction of Western gender binaries by colonialism, and how that created stigma among Māori.
Yeah, I feel that. A lot the views and values that some of our people hold today stem from the introduction of [foreign] beliefs. We also see this across the Pacific and many other indigenous cultures—the introduction of those foreign beliefs, and how that changes the way our people viewed things.

I'm not here to say that those beliefs are wrong. What is wrong is the fact we lost our right to be ourselves because of it.

How far back does the history of Māori LGBTQ go?
Because Māori had an oral culture, there are no writings. What we do have are carvings that show same-sex relationships did happen. We have stories recorded by the first [white] people who made contact with our ancestors, seeing or having sexual relationship with same gender. So the activity was happening.

Whether or not it was an accepted part of society is unclear, but if you look across the Pacific and at other indigenous cultures, we can see that they held positions of mana [status], and we feel that we also did.

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Tell me about how the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Act also helped mobilize Māori LGBTQ.
The Law Reform Act came at the same time as the AIDS epidemic, so there was a lot of stigma and prejudice throughout New Zealand—across all cultures. [But] in particular the Māori community, because some communities we come from are staunchly religious, staunchly cultural. You know: Men are men, women are women. There is no in-between.

This book has a particular focus on past stories. What work is there still to be done to de-marginalize takatāpui?
It's important for us to acknowledge that a lot of whanau [family], hapu [sub tribes] and iwi [tribes] are really supportive of takatāpui, and just consider us part of the whanau. I've seen that first hand.

But I still see rainbow youth who are kicked out of home for being who they are. We still hear stories of those who are beaten or bullied, we still have high suicide rates. We need to do everything we can to change that, and telling our stories is a really good way for Māori. It's how we educate our people. And that's what this book is all about.

Images by Tanu Gago, reproduced fromTakatapui: A Place of Standing, edited by Jordon Harris and published by the New Zealand Aids Foundation in collaboration with Oratia Books.